Worldwide populist tides and our collective Shadow

Recep Erdogan in Turkey. Viktor Orban in Hungary. Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland. Vladimir Putin in Russia. Narendra Modi in India. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Donald Trump in the US.

What do they have in common ? They are all men, democratically elected, riding on waves of populism and discontent with the existing political system, and displaying marked authoritarian tendencies. We can add to the list those not elected but dragging their countries towards more authoritarianism, such as Xi Jinping in China or Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Egypt.

They are all modern incarnations of a very particular and timeless kind of ruler : the “Father figure”, the strongman ensuring safety, efficacy, pride to those he rules. He has existed in countless cultures and societies for thousands of years. But these days, we are seeing a new wave of such populist nationalist leadership around the world.

Why now and what next?

The precise causes vary of course from one country to the next. But we can find commonalities. If we plunge into the deeper root causes, we discover the blueprint of a universal process: decades of psychological research have shown how whatever gets suppressed and repressed by our conscious, rational self, does not disappear. It simply gets stored in our unconscious, in the dark corners of our personality called “the Shadow”. It piles up, gathers steam and one day, with the right trigger, it can surface — often in destructive ways. It is true at the level of each individual but also at the level of nations. In its extreme form, this process leads to revolutions like France in 1789 or Russia in 1917. In more conventional manifestations, it carries a leader who embodies those forces to power. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung famously explained Hitler’s rise to power by analyzing the drives lodged in the German collective unconscious. The same process is at play these days in many nations.

What are those forces ? Here are a few, which vary in intensity from one country to another.

1. the need for tribal identity, clear boundaries and safety. For thousands of years, humans have fulfilled their core need for safety and nourishment (among others) through the belonging and identification with a particular “tribe” — with a clear sense of “us” and “them”. In psychological terms, this provides security and nourishment to our “inner child” (the vulnerable side in us, needing safety and love).

Yet, in the age of globalization with blurry borders, international trade and a lurking global terror threat, in the digital age with its ethos of “humanity as a global village”, an existential angst has been accumulating in many people’s Shadow.

This is true in Europe with its open borders, its issues with immigration and terrorism, the blurring of power between nations and the EU in Brussels. Those challenges raise questions of identity and safety and have been masterfully leveraged -for instance- by the Hungarian and Polish leaders, as well as by Brexit supporters in the UK. In the US, when Trump promises to build a wall with Mexico, it is an obvious archetypal answer to this human need for safety and for a clear separation between “us and them”. The pride in one’s identity is a relentless and successful motto in Putin’s Russia, in Modi’s India, in Xi’s China, in Erdogan’s Turkey. In Poland for instance, Kaczynski sees the integration to Europe and the promotion of humanistic values post-1989 as wrong. His country’s identity has been dangerously blurred & diluted. He thus intends to bring it back to its conservative, patriarchal, nationalistic Catholic roots.

2. the fear of the Other & of the Feminine (i.e. of what it represents in both men and women –feelings, intuition, a balanced wisdom etc.) which can translate into racism, homophobia, the objectification & abuse of women and so on. Those fears got exacerbated over the past few years with globalization, gay marriage, women’s empowerment, a constant terror threat etc. In the US for instance, a large number of Americans have been feeling they are “losing their country”, i.e. one where white, middle and upper class, heterosexual, native-born men reign supreme. And with an ever-present layer of political correctness , those fears & frustrations remained largely unexpressed, hidden in the Shadow — yet deeply and intensely felt.

Trump kept echoing them in his campaign — projecting the fear of the Other on Mexicans, illegal immigrants, terrorists etc.; embodying the fear of the Feminine and its usual counterpart, the abuse of women: his demeaning approach of women resonated –if only unconsciously — with many who either think of women in this way, treat them in such ways, or simply wish they could do so.

In Russia, homophobia and racism are two wildly popular themes in the presidential rhetoric. In Poland, Euroskepticism, homophobia, xenophobia, an exacerbated fear of Russia & Germany have been at the core of Kazcynski’s ideology. In Turkey the ‘fear of the other’ is channeled on Kurds, Americans, Güllenists and more. In Viktor Orban’s Hungary, immigrants, George Soros, Jews are some of the targets used to project collective fears and resentment.

No matter which country we look at, we can see deep, powerful patriarchal forces at play — all those populist waves are incarnated by “strong men” who deride nuance, tolerance, moderation (“feminine” traits) as signs of weakness and decadence, and instead celebrate brute force and machismo. Look at Putin and his physical prowess, look at Trump and his proud conquests of women, look at Duterte and his pride in having killed “deviant rotten men” with his own hands.

3. the need for a radical cleanse of the system and the fear of uncertainty. This is clearly a point in common between all populist waves — years of accumulated frustration against rotten political systems, as well as a perceived sense of uncertainty, a lack of order. Putin became President after a chaotic and corrupt decade under Boris Yeltsin, with a clear mandate to re-establish law and order, and give the country a new sense of direction. Rodrigo Duterte is projecting the need to “cleanse the system” on drug users, proudly stating he would not mind killing three million of them if need be. In the US, the need for radical change and a full “cleanse” of the system has been accumulating for years —frustrations with the lies leading to the Iraq war, the mostly unpunished culprits of the 2008 financial crisis, the dizzying lobbyists per congressman ratio, the stalemate in Washington and so much more. Trump played masterfully on those sentiments, presenting himself as the independent outsider who knows the system from inside, and can thus cleanse it to the core.

4. the need for a strong “Father Figure”: when all those unconscious forces accumulate in the collective Shadow of nations, they can get projected on a “father figure”, a strongman portraying himself as the savior, with a clear and simple answer to all ills. This has happened countless times in history and we see it at play again in those populist waves. In each case, a man manages to embody, channel, leverage and exacerbate the forces lodged in his country’s Shadow. And this embodiment carries him to power, potentially maintaining him there for years.

We all have an “inner child”, a side in us needing safety and certainty. At times, instead of developing an “inner parent” to take care of it, we project this need on a leader. In the US for instance we see this with Trump as the archetypal “compensation” for Obama. When the President is a moderate man rooted in his intellect (and not in his guts), in touch with his Feminine, striving for balance and tolerance, embodying multiculturalism, the opposing regressive instincts keep accumulating in the Shadow. They then get projected on a man embodying self-confident, fear-based, authoritarian, instinctive, tribal leadership. In Russia, Putin came to “heal the narcissistic wound” of a country which used to be an empire, lost it all, and felt humiliated, robbed of its riches. Erdogan, Orban, Kaczynzki, Modi, Xi all use a similar blueprint in their countries as strongmen with an iron will and fist, bent on restoring their country’s strength and glory.

When a leader gets elected as an embodiment of Shadow forces two things can happen: widespread destruction or radical transformation. The way the former happens is obvious. But what about the latter? Let us take the US example: with Donald Trump in the White House the Shadow forces are now all in the open — nobody can deny the continuing potency of racism, sexism and homophobia; or the cry for a cleaner political system; or the need for a clearer identity and tribal belonging. And as those sentiments see the light of day, they can interact with other forces, and thus can be transformed. Besides, as countless citizens fear Trump’s actions as President, they get activated — they plunge in themselves to find their best skills, tapping into them to prevent or counteract any potential damage. Thus, like in the mythical “encounter with the Dragon”, each person grows in strength and impact.

The reality of each country and how to deal with its respective shadow varies, of course. But one rule is valid for all: as Carl Jung said, “Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integrating our contraries”. Relegating in the collective Shadow the forces and instincts revealed by an authoritarian leader is unwise, dangerous and destructive. Integrating, processing & transforming them is an arduous, challenging, complex and lengthy process, but one with the highest rewards of growth, fulfillment and wholeness — for us individually, and for each nation as a whole.